Today a reader in South Africa asked our Customer Service how we choose novels for Select Editions. Good question! Here is the answer I sent to this interested reader. We invite you to comment on this behind-the-scenes insight into the way we select fiction for you …
Reader's Digest's relationship with Condensed Books (Select Editions) customers goes back 57 years. I wasn't the Editorial Manager back in 1954, but I've made a study of the kinds of books that used to be chosen for our volumes, and anyone who has complete collections of SE will have noticed one obvious feature -- many of the titles tended to be best-sellers of the time. There was also a high proportion of books that were very soon made into films. I can think of Giant (Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean) as a clear example. In other words, Reader's Digest was alert to what was happening in the marketplace, in the press, in bookstores: if a book 'took off' in some way, we believed our readers would like us to make it available to them. In the 1950s there were often five stories in a volume, and there was an attempt to balance the selection in terms of themes, setting, plot, characters etc. Novels of suspense were at the top of the best-seller lists then as now, but so were books of a more serious nature, and so were those about relationships and families -- and we tried to pick the best from amongst them. An example of what we'd now call a 'thriller' was To Catch a Thief. An example of a deeply personal book that also dealt with relationships was Out of Africa (volume 10). Sometimes the fifth story would have a bit of whimsy or humour in it, to lighten the tone.
How did we know that readers liked our selections? We discovered to our delight that these books fulfilled a need. Readers loved them and they went on buying them, first in America and then worldwide: and there are still millions of copies going out every year in our time-honoured format -- four recent novels in each volume, six volumes a year. Another gratifying answer is that famous authors also liked seeing their work in Reader's Digest's condensations. From Dick Francis to Lee Child to Maeve Binchy, they've found our editions entertaining and looked forward to their works reaching readers who, for good reasons of their own, love to receive some of their books in the post. The treasure troves that regularly arrive in your letterbox are like a surprise present from you to yourself, and we know that many readers enjoy that surprise factor. How do we know about customer reactions? For decades we used to send out questionnaires to find out what readers liked about Select Editions, and we also asked them for opinions, suggestions and recommendations about novels in general. A very high percentage of customers replied in full, and when I first joined Reader's Digest I scanned these documents avidly. They gave us accurate statistics about Select Editions reading tastes in our region. For instance, we learned that the historical novel took a downturn in popularity in the 1980s, at least as far as our readers were concerned. On the other hand, detective novels and the crime thriller climbed to the top of our readers' charts -- and they've stayed there. Times change and our readers with them: the historical novel has made a comeback and our selections reflect this -- witness our inclusion of The Dam Buster in a recent SE (did you know that the original The Dam Busters was in our volume 1, in 1954!?), and Robert Harris's riveting Pompeii. And we still include novels about relationships such as the international blockbusters by Nicholas Sparks.
We have not sent out questionnaires for a while, mainly because we can see our communication with customers moving into another phase, now that we're truly in the electronic age. Our readers receive emails and e-newsletters from us, and we are expanding the opportunities for people to send us reviews, opinions, suggestions and debate in the Reader's Room http://www.readersdigest.com.au/readers-room, to which I also contribute a blog with a facility for you to leave your comments. Meanwhile people still mail us letters and let us know what they think of our books. We once received a comment: 'No soppy romances, please!' By and large we keep that plea in mind -- any romantic stories that we choose tend to have another element, such as wit, great dialogue or an unexpected plot. Years ago many readers begged us to include Clive Cussler's action thrillers in Select Editions -- we've obliged, with pleasure.
Whichever way you approach it, however, choosing four books for other people and binding them up in one volume for them to enjoy is a very adventurous exercise! As we make these choices, six times a year, we must remain aware of what our customers have told us they like, we must be up to date with the most entertaining new novels that hit the bookshops (such as The Da Vinci Code, which appeared in SE volume 262), and we need to be on the lookout for debut novels from our region with which customers may feel a particular affinity: hence the recent Inspector Singh Investigates: the Singapore School of Villainy, or Alison Booth's delightful Stillwater Creek, set in a small NSW township. The facebook query came from South Africa, and I'm hoping that that customer had a chance to read South African writer Deon Meyer's debut in SE: Thirteen Hours. Thanks for the query. I enjoyed giving an answer which, despite its length (!) is still just a partial one. In the end, we can only be sure we've chosen thoughtfully when customers continue to order and devour our books. So far, I'm happy to say that they do.
For a peek at Alison Booth's Stillwater Creek, click here.
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